Last Friday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis traveled to the early caucus state of Iowa for his first appearances on the 2024 presidential campaign trail, and did something practically unheard of in the annals of presidential campaigning—he didn’t talk about the national economy (jobs and health care didn’t come up either).
The absence of these bread-and-butter campaign themes from DeSantis’ speeches is emblematic of a larger problem facing the GOP—Republican leaders are in thrall to the grievances of the most extreme members of their party and deeply out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans.
DeSantis instead doled out hunks of red meat as he focused on a narrow set of culture war issues and grievances that are of little interest to most voters.
He crowed about his attacks on The Walt Disney Company and its allegedly woke agenda. He accused “the left” of wanting to indoctrinate school kids and bragged about removing critical race theory from Florida schools, requiring students to spend one day a year learning about the evils of communism, and removing “Diversity, Education, and Inclusion” (DEI) initiatives from Florida’s public universities.
He called Florida “a citadel of freedom” during the COVID-19 pandemic for opposing school closures, mask requirements or vaccine mandates. “We refused,” DeSantis said, “to let our state descend into some type of ‘Faucian dystopia,’” as he also suggested that the COVID vaccines were not effective. (More than 86,000 Floridians have died from COVID, the 13th highest per capita death rate in the country.)
He talked tough on crime and illegal immigration, even taking credit for using taxpayer dollars to send 50 migrants (who were in the country legally, and in Texas, not Florida), to the liberal bastion of Martha’s Vineyard. He claimed the Army was immediately called in to have them deported, which is not remotely true but sounds great to liberal-hating conservatives.
At one point, he spoke of banning “Zuckerbucks” from Florida campaigns. I follow politics pretty closely, and I had no idea what this referred to. Turns out, it’s yet another standard grievance on the far right about non-profits, like the one funded by Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, donating to election organizations.
If you spend six to eight hours a day watching Fox News, these GOP talking points will likely sound familiar. But ordinary Americans will likely draw a blank. Or they will simply disagree with the Florida governor.
Take, for example, DeSantis’ incessant attacks on “wokeism.” In his January inaugural address, he called Florida the place “where woke goes to die,” and in Iowa, said that he was working to pass legislation that will create “protections against woke banking” (whatever that actually means).
And yet, according to a recent Ipsos/USA Today poll, 56 percent of Americans have a positive association with the term “woke” and understand it to mean being “informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices.” Only 39 percent have a negative connotation with the word. For hardcore conservatives, “woke” is a four-letter word. But not for the rest of the country.
And for all of DeSantis’ attacks on Disney, the company is actually more popular than the Florida governor in his own state. A November 2022 poll showed that Disney had a favorability of 55 percent compared to only 38 percent of respondents who approved of DeSantis.
But even if Americans are aware of DeSantis’ list of grievances, they don’t appear to care. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, 29 percent of Americans, and 43 percent of Republicans, say inflation is the most urgent issue facing the country. DeSantis didn’t talk about it in Iowa.
While DeSantis loves bragging about his COVID record in Florida, President Biden’s handling of the pandemic is the issue on which he polls best. In Iowa, DeSantis said public health experts were wrong about the “efficacy of MRNA jabs,” which is a roundabout way of questioning the effectiveness of COVID vaccines (these comments are also in sharp contrast to his initial calls for Floridians to get vaccinated.)
DeSantis’ odd boasting about his lax attitude toward protecting Americans from a virus that has killed more than 1.1 million Americans might be catnip in the conservative fever swamp—but it’s hardly a winning presidential campaign message. In fact, even now, three years into the pandemic and long after the fights over vaccine mandates have faded away, a majority of Americans support such requirements.
The obvious rejoinder to all this is that DeSantis’ focus is on the Republican presidential primary—and all that matters is winning over the most conservative voters. And while that’s certainly his near-term priority, winning presidential candidates need to craft campaign messages that resonate with their core supporters, but also have broad-based appeal.
DeSantis has the first part down—the second not so much.
In fact, in Iowa, he went out of his way to belittle and demonize his political opponents—because these days, the only thing Republicans love more than paeans to law and order, immigrant-bashing, and attacks on Dr. Fauci is denigrating “the left.”
Just a month ago, we saw this exact issue play out on the national stage at the State of the Union address. President Joe Biden used his speech to Congress and the American people to talk about health care, job creation, and sparing consumers junk fees from credit-card companies, airlines, and perhaps the most hated of private sector companies—Ticketmaster.
Meanwhile, in the GOP response, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders railed against the “woke mob” and warned that Americans must fight back against liberals who demand “that we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols… all while big government colludes with Big Tech to strip away the most American thing there is—your freedom of speech.”
The GOP’s misplaced agenda is also evident in the nation’s state legislatures, as Republicans are practically falling over themselves to prohibit gender therapies for trans kids or ban that most insidious of public displays… drag performances for children.
In Florida, besides new restrictions on what can be taught in public universities (similar laws have already led to book bans in the state’s elementary schools), Republicans may soon pass a six-week abortion ban and allow state residents to carry a concealed gun without a license. Both pieces of legislation are overwhelmingly unpopular, even among Florida residents—but again, they are favored by the most extreme and most vocal members of the GOP, and for DeSantis, that’s enough.
On Capitol Hill, the new GOP House majority is more focused on Twitter, Hunter Biden, and meaningless resolutions condemning socialism than the kitchen table issues that Americans actually care about.
The irony of all this is that while Republicans like to portray Democrats as out-of-touch elites stuck in their liberal bubbles, up and down the Acela Corridor, this accusation far better applies to them. Republicans are increasingly stuck in a conservative echo chamber and obsessed with divisive cultural issues and “owning the libs.”
The GOP, it seems, only knows how to talk to their supporters, and for the rest of America, they might as well be speaking a foreign language.